Team VA's Wonderings

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don't Mention the War

For me crossing into Argentina today marks the start of silly season. I fly in 21 days; after spending more than 2 and a half months in just 4 South American countries, the last 3 weeks cover a possible flit to Paraguay at Iguassu as well as stops in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina-the world's 5th and 8th largest countries. They´ve also won 9 Soccer World Cups between them-the same as all of Europe put together, well the rest of the world put together when you come down to it. There are times when the itinerary I've got on is odd-there was too much Peru. Anyway, it is what it is.

Argentina's just 2 stops-Bariloche, where I'll be snowboarding (might even get some photos this time), and Buenos Aires. The stops are linked by a 24 hour bus ride-must buy some snacks. As I grind to a halt, I feel the blog may too-I sense there's less to write about coming up. Perhaps I'll become all reflective.

Anyway before I offend a load of Argies with my views on their desire for the Malvinas being nothing more than a demonstration of national insecurity (a very long conversation I had with an Aussie girl in Quito assures me this is still a raw issue), we had our final stop in Chile.

Puerto Varas is in the Lake District, very Northern Patagonia. I wondered round after we arrived and it was a pretty lakeside town with German influence that extended to a Black Forest inspired church

Effectively we had one day in the area and it was a little hard to know what to do. It seemed the kind of place you could spend a week and do a range of things. Without any obvious 'must do', I took a punt on touring Chiloé Island for the day.

We bussed down and took the ferry across a Pacific inlet to reach Chacao, where the extensive use of shingles made Iz tremendously happy.

Unsurprisingly on an island (South America's second largest) there were lots of birds including black necked swans and cormorants

I think I wrote this in the Ballestas Islands, but one of the reasons for coming was this might be my last chance to see penguins. The boat ride to see the penguins was exciting (rough) enough to provoke some Laura screaming and her assertion that 'we're all going to die'. We survived to get very close to the penguins, although the weather reduced the photo ops

and the islands the penguins chose to live on were pretty lovely too

Rapa Nui aside, Chile's been without major highlights, it's also been expensive and cold. I really liked it tho.

The change as we went into Argentina was immediate. It was like entering a winter wonderland. The border seemed to mark our entry into the Patagonia of my head. The snow on the roadside was piled above the height of the bus. The branches of the trees sagged under the weight of fresh snow. Mountains covered in snow and trees rise up above lakes glistening in the sun. It's none too shabby.

As I gazed out the bus window and read more about Bariloche, I decided to spend just a day on the slopes so I could have a day on the lakes amidst the stunning scenery.

The Ultimate Olympian has pointed out Blog de Poll can't drink. This is worryingly true as another messy night out on arrival in Bariloche emphasised. I am ridiculously tired and should know better than to order long island ice tea after a boozy dinner. 4 hours kip that night was the final straw. I really shouldn't have bothered heading up to the gorgeous Cerro Catedral

after some slovenly snowboarding and nearly falling asleep at lunch, I gave it up as a bad job and headed back to the hotel. I did manage to stir myself for sunset by the lake.

I'm flogging that last one to a fourpiece for their next album cover. I envisage a massive U2 vs Coldplay bidding war-reckon U2 will win as it makes Bono and The Edge look tall.

So to the lakes and another travelling odyssey-the bus to Puerto Pañuelos, then boat (El Condor) onto Puerto Blest, then a bus to another boat on the Green Lake, where you can cross the border into Chile, back on that boat, lunch (picnic by the lake for Iz, Ian and I, overpriced crap for the rest), walk by the lakeshore, boat, walk to the waterfall, boat and bus home. You can combine this with a few more steps to get across from Puerto Varas; at the start of the day I thought we should have done that. By the end, I agreed with Laura that by the time you got to the last lake (where we started) you'd be too battered to enjoy it. I think what we did worked out for the best.

I could and probably should write more, but every picture tells a story

A lot of us have been to New Zealand, so there was a bit of discussion on comparing this to the Sounds. General opinion was that this was better. I felt it was different-Milford was more majestic and awe inspiring as it towered over you, but the covering of snow here really added something. I want to come back to Patagonia and link up to Antarctica. Will I ever be free of the compulsion to travel?

24 hours from Buenos
A 24 hour bus ride. Would you believe it's not long enough to get all the sleep I want, read enough, listen to all the tunes I had in mind, plan Buenos, chat and watch the Bourne Ultimatum?

Well it isn't so there.

Tango tomorrow, then Iz, Ian and Olivia leave. Gonna be short on pals for the final push.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bubbling mud pool video test

see if this works. still want to post dynamite. regular post below.

Chilly in Chile

It's fair to say no one really understood stopping in La Serena. The attractions-pisco tour, penguins/sea lions boat trip, local villages, observatory-were all things we'd already seen farther north. La Serena's also a beach town, but even I was wearing a jumper. After the 17 hour bus ride we arrived with a full day, but food, showers, laundry, checking out options etc. and a lack of drive saw the day drift away. We'd tackle La Serena on the morrow.

A funny thing happened at breakfast. I'd been talking about Yellow a few minutes before, when a new song started on the TV. It caught my eye and I said-is that the Pyramid Stage? It was. That's Coldplay. I was there in the mud in '05. And then the crowd started singing 'Look at the stars' (Chris Martin took the first verse off) and I was transported-I was no longer in the conversation, the café or Chile. Did I miss home, not that I have one, for the first time? Or did I just miss Glasto? Is that now my spiritual home? I'm not sure if I'll be ready to return to the UK in a month, but I'm fairly certain I'll be ready to leave South America.

Since then the number of e-mails asking when I'm back has increased, the messages have started asking if I want to do things when I'm back (most of which cost money) and I've read Swiss Toni's alphabetical CD posts (which I enjoyed and want to do myself). So I'm ready. And this seems a good opportunity to say to everyone who's commented on this blog, mailed me, texted me and been thinking of me from time to time-love you guys.

Swiss Toni-thanks for the Billy Bragg credit, I didn't realise that came from me. I shall put the Bard of Barking on right now.

Anyway, back in La Serena......

We took a spin round the small local museum. The others were accosted by hoardes of local kids, but the attraction for me was the Moai they'd pinched

Feels like an old friend-Rapa Nui feels a lifetime ago.

Afterwards, we hired bikes, picnicked on the beach and Lorna and I went to see No Reservations, which had been the plan before La Paz got so messy. Not life changing, but a nice day.

Santiago Hello/Goodbye
So goodbye/farewell to Brett, Lorna, Connor & Catherine, Richard & Katie, Chris & Laura2. Some have had a few mentions here, others not so much. There'll be new names and faces joining, but given my sense of being on the home straight I doubt the newbies will replace them. For me, I'm feeling somewhat withdrawn-I can't really be arsed in other words.

Returning to Santiago will complete a mini-loop (of several thousand miles) that I started in mid May. Slow times in La Serena allowed us to do some planning, so tomorrow we're off snowboarding before a winery tour on Saturday. After another 7 hours on the bus.

I wrote most of the above about a week ago, since then there've been good, if unspectacular times. I've the bus ride between Pucon and Puerta Varas to write about it, so I reckon on being a little more succinct than usual.

We reached Santiago mid afternoon, which left time for Lorna to give me a haircut before heading out for a curry, which was probably the best food we've had in South America. We even headed back 2 nights later for Lorna and Brett's last night with the newbies in tow.

We had a cracking day snowboarding at Le Colorado about an hour and a half outside Santiago. Ian and Conor knew what they were doing, while the others were beginners, leaving me a little in between. While they had their morning, we headed off round the very quiet slopes. I was pleasantly surprised, after nearly 3 years, that I remembered quite a lot-including how to catch an edge and do a 720 degree front somersault complete with bouncing on my head. We spent the afternoon as cut price snowboard instructors to the other 8. I recommended my patented Jesus technique.

(Emily, if you or anyone in Howth is reading this, Conor is Conor McGuinness. He was a DCU engineer and has a brother, called John I think, who Conor reckons was at your 21st.) Everyone else-it's small world.

In the grand tradition of such events, the leaving dinner was lame. People were tired from snowboarding, hungover from the night before, sick (still not me) and had early flights. And anyway, Lorna and Brett were staying another day and we'd see Rich and Katie again in Pucon. After a disappointing dinner (a small risotto side dish and a portion of rice for me), about half of us went for one drink. Lorna and I were last out of the bar-we were about 5 minutes into our second drink, when to our surprise everyone else left-they'd had their one drink. Some people don't know how to have just one.

Unfortunately our trip to the Unduragga Vineyard was switched to 9 a.m. Lorna, Brett and I weren't in the best shape as a result, but it was a goody-they had a great gate,

the cellars looked tempting

and we were quaffing by 10.30. The afternoon was spent in an Irish bar (for Conor and Bryan, who's just joined us to Rio) watching 15 Irish doing a miserable impression of a rugby team.

So by Sunday I'd spent 5 nights in Santiago and was yet to see the city. With a night bus in the evening, this was my last chance. We climbed up the 630m Cerro Santa Lucia for views over the city and the mountains beyond. Then the Palacio de Bellas Artes (art gallery) was followed by lunch, then the exhaustion kicked in leaving only the energy for goodbyes. Since the salt flats, I've spent the overwhelming majority of my time with Lorna and Brett. Reckon it'll feel a bit hollow without them. On the plus side, we have only one Laura now and no Lorna, so the names are a lot easier for me

Just 2 days before Chilean independence day, the bus station was busy as you like at 10 p.m. on a Sunday. To reach the lakes of Pucon (a name confusingly similar to Puno) would take us 10 hours overnight. We got off to the worst possible start; as we were settling into our seats, a suited guy offered to help one of the Danish girls put her bag up on the rack. I wish I'd noticed-I was across the aisle, but was rummaging in my bag and thought he was just moving their bag to make room for his. No one noticed him get off, but he did and the camera, cards, passport and bag were never seen again. The girls had to get off too; they were a bit lucky that they managed to get a replacement passport in a day and join us 24 hours later. Their trip was nearly over before it began.

This was on top of Lor's bag being taken while she had lunch the day before.

It may be a stereotype, but South America really is the home of sneak thieving. I've heard so many stories from people who've been robbed (a mugger punched Lor in Cuzco); I don't think local economic factors are an excuse-I think this is way worse than Africa and Chile is riding high at 37 in the world development league. Short changing and chucking extras on restaurant bils are also common; you have to watch your washing and ask for your 'missing' clothes back. It just seems to be part of the culture. I guess, as Noel Coward says in The Italian Job, 'everybody's bent'.

The havoc we seem to be spreading across South America continued in Pucon. Less than half an hour after getting off the bus, I was sat on the biggest bed I've ever seen in the girls' room (another shit room for the boys) when an air raid siren went off. When we got into town, the reason for the siren became clear.

This was the casino. In the end the whole block burnt down. The architects were unimpressed by the fire proofing. Charred bits fell from the sky. Given the timing, special fire investigator van de Poll estimated it probably started at the very moment we stepped off the bus. Spooky.

In a separate conversation I remembered the crashing of the Kiwi Experience bus. Plus my previous chaos creation when travelling: Tenerife-riot, Russia-near coup, Paris-death of Diana. It's just a trail of disaster. Then Rich said a meteorite had crashed just near Puno. What is going on? I'm going to keep an eye on South American news when I get home-see if it's always volcanoes, earthquakes, disappearing islands, bus crashes, fires and meteor strikes. Or if it's just us.

We spent our time in the country- half a day on horses, then a day on bikes. The horses were feisty, but nearly half the price of the agency Christian took us to. We trekked up the hills and rolling views before walking to a waterfall in the trees.

We grabbed 4 bikes and although they weren't much good, we went up hill and down dale and reached the Ojos de Caburgua

On top of the falls was a gorgeous mirror pool

We did about 50km in all-it was just a shame we ran out of time before we could play the mini golf course we found.

As it was Chile day, you know the evening drill-see earlier entries on Peru day, Swiss day and cheap large Havana Clubs (3 times the price in Chile).

Ian and I took a long walk to the golf course, only to find out the price on the internet was wrong, there were twice as many holes as the net said and we didn't have enough money to play. So we walked back, found out the Chile day rodeo was off and it started to rain. So I took the rest of the day off.

Next stop Puerto Varas, our last in Chile. Then it's Argentina.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bye Bye Bolivia


The journey from Sucre to Potosi was uneventful once we'd left the street our hotel was on. Drives used the bus to bring down overhead cables. I'm writing this on the bus out of Potosi and this bus has just done the same thing. At this rate there'll be no power or communications left in Bolivia. Potosi was a rather pleasant town, although at first glance our accomodation looked a touch basic,

unfinished even. I think it was the best room we've had; the boys getting the short straw has been a running joke, but we had a sofa, big TV and a shower so hot you needed to use the cold tap too.

At over 4,000m Potosi is the highest city on earth. It's here because of the silver mines we'll visit-silver was found in 1545. I could write a lot about the mines, but I think these 3 facts will speak for themselves.

The silver at Potosi was sufficient to build a silver bridge between here and Madrid.

Today, you have to be 14 to work in the mines; this restriction is widely flouted.

8 million people have died in Potosi's mines.

Before we got in the mine it was quite a palaver. Bus to place where we were suited and booted (red for the ladies, yellow the men); bus to goody bag shop-we took the miners drinks (not the 96% mind rot they party with on Fridays), biscuits, fags, dynamite, detonators, accelerant and the coca they chew to fuel their 24 hour shifts

Then the bus to the mine-the bus broke down 3 or 4 times; drives was sucking on the fuel pipe and at one point he had to retrieve a spark plug that had fallen out of the engine onto the road. Ideal with 7 sticks of dynamite onboard.

We also got facemasks.

The miners don't get these. In the deepest parts life expectancy is 10 years-guys plan to do 2 or 3 years, but the money's good and they get sucked into one more year. And then another. It's a little like a city banking job that fucks your lungs up. We may have had some gimmicky touches-letting off dynamite and winching up bags of rocks, but the mine was a dangerous, fear inspiring and horrible place.

At this altitude we're often struggling just walking outside. Crouching, crawling and climbing through tunnels lit only by our head torches we're a mess. I keep smashing my helmet against the walls and ceiling-my lamp falls off 3 times. Meanwhile miners carrying sacks of rock and shoving wheelbarrows are racing past us. They are phenomenonal.

Although I'm sure the mine has far worse places, this is no tourist sanitised stroll. There are several sections that are difficult to negotiate, especially when carrying a miner's goody bag (every time we meet a miner, everyone tries to make sure the miner gets their goodies). We passed a number of holes that I didn't think you'd come back from if you plunged down it. The sharp sulphites on the walls cut your hands. In different places it can be extremely hot or cold; breathing difficulties come from both the altitude and the dust. Beyond a few bits of wood to hold up the ceiling, there seemed no safety measures. For us this was 2 hours underground, for many this is their place of work.

We set off dynamite both inside and outside the mine. Here I am with what is essentially a bomb.

I have a couple of dynamite videos, which I hope I can insert here.

VIDEO 7298 7309
Doesn´t work, will try facebook

They're a bit long as you don't know how long the fuse will last, but let's face it, these are all about the bang.

The mine was far more appalling than I had feared.

Would I buy silver after this?

People now work here through choice; the money is good; the industry is an important part of the economy of the continent's poorest country; conditions in the mines are dreadful; children are working there; people are giving their lives for a precious, essentially luxury metal.

Would I buy silver after this?

I don't know. It's very complicated and demonstrates how difficult even informed consumer decisions are. I know I wouldn't want to be a miner.

After buying lunch for tomorrow's bus journey, we went to the Casa de la Moneida, the former mint billed as Bolivia's best museum. In all honesty, it wasn't anything too special until the end when you get to make your own coin. Basically, you put a metal blank between 2 stamps and then belt it with a sledgehammer.

Mine got an approving 'bueno' from the mint employee. Possible new career.

At this altitude you really need your drinking boots on; so even Brett's constitution was tested by a trip to 4060 (allegedly the world's highest bar), followed by Ring of Fire, played with Catherine's birthday vodka and some local firewater. The miners would have approved.

Even by my standards this has been a crazy mix of the silly, self-indulgent, the serious and life or death. I don't want to be flippant, but reflect the absurdities travelling often presents. Perhaps the contrasts hint at life's inherent contradictions. Perhaps I'm a molly coddled westerner unable to relate decently to what's around him. I know the mine horrified me; I know my helmet hair and Laura screaming at the dynamite made me laugh. I'm not sure what that makes me.

Our next stop is the salt flats, which I've been looking forward to since seeing Amy's photos of unearthly landscapes last October.

The Salt Flats
The salt flats are 12,000km2 and are 8m deep in salt-Brett and I worked out that's 96 billion cubic metres of salt. That's plenty of salt. The flats used to be an inland sea, which was driven up from the ocean by tectonic movement. The sea dried up, salt flats arose. Bingo.

On the way out we visited a train graveyard.

As you do.

The landscape of the salt flats is an unrelenting white, broken by the occasional island and salt mound the miners are drying out. Apparently it's OK to stand on them, take photos and jump

The strange visual effects of the white means you marvel for a while, get dazzled and then take as many freaky photos as you can.

Keeping with the slightly gimmicky feel, when we were driving 4 abreast our driver kept up his bandit image by driving out of the window. A minute or so of fiddling jammed the acelerator with a screwdriver, he then opened the door, got out (Land Cruiser's have a running board), shut the door and steered through the open window. Roman, for that was his name, was that kind of guy. If we weren't ahead of the other 3 cars, he wouldn't take the main path, he'd be off anywhere to try and get an advantage. Sometimes I reckon he willfully went a more awkward way-even in town he drove on the wrong side of the road if he could. To complete a gimmicky day we stayed in a salt hotel that had been open 5 days. The beds were mattresses on salt bricks, the same bricks formed the key construction and the floor was loose salt several inches deep-it was like sand, but less annoying. The stars was the best I'd seen in South America and it was nowhere near as cold as expected-I slept in a t-shirt and didn't use the sleeping bag I'd hired.

The Desert
We crossed the salt flats on the first day and spent the second day in the lagoons and rock formations of the desert.

The flamingoes

were somewhat overshadowed by Lorna running, then slipping and finally falling in the sulphorous mud

In between photos I did help her out of the mud.

I think the so called Stone Tree was the oddest of all the rocks

The best way to describe our last day in Bolivia/first day in Chile is massif. Up at 5, we visited geysers and lagoons, crossed the border, walked across death valley, visited Chile's Valle de la Luna and watched the sun set. And after all that, it was Saturday night.

We left a little late as Brett had chosen today to forget where he'd put his passport, which he was going to need really soon. We made the geysers for sunrise

and wandered round for a while, but it was properly cold so we were soon back in the truck and on our way to the hot pool. I nearly persuaded Brett to get in with the old 'everyone's getting in' line, but he rumbled me. The idea of stripping off to your bathers to then sit in an outdoor pool of naturally heated water put everyone off, but my feet were freezing so I got in alone (apart from the posse of Germans already there). It was surprisingly pleasant and even getting dry and changed afterwards wasn't the shocker I'd feared. I might never have got in had I known how cold it was: I hung my shorts on the front of the Land Cruiser so they'd dry while I had breakfast. In the direct sunlight they dried quite well, but the cord you tie round your waist wasn't in the sun. It froze solid.

As we headed out of Bolivia the scenery stayed as stunning as the temperature was low.

San Pedro, Chile
Entering Chile Christian the Chilean became quite smug-Chile is a lot wealthier and within 5 mins we were on a paved road after 3 days of dirt track, salt and sand in Bolivia. On producing 15 Bolivianos crossing the border was quick and easy, though Chilean customs had a good feel of our bags in case we had fruit or seeds-it wasn't quite as thorough as Oz.

We had an hour to have our first shower in 3 days (plus bonuss shave for me), find some clothes not covered in dust, get Chilean pesos (1,000 to the pound) and buy some lunch and wine. This was so we could get back on the bus for some more mental landscapes at Death Valley and the Valle de la Luna outside San Pedro. La Paz's Valle de la Luna loses out in terms of scale, drama and realism-they test mars landing modules here.

We walked in t-shirts for a couple of hours through tunnels and prime ambush territory; it was a poignant contrast to a few hours earlier when we'd been on the other side of this volcano

freezing our butts off in another country.

We dropped a lot of altitude today-the geysers were around 4,900m, while San Pedro is 2,440. Chicken feed to us these days. Christian had an empty water bottle from the geysers-in San Pedro it was about half the size as the pressure crushed it. Good science demo.

We found that 2,440m is still pretty high over the course of a very messy and emotional night. We'd had a few glasses of the excellent (and very inexpensive) red as we watched the sun set over the Valle de la Luna. After a few more glasses during dinner we ended up in a bar with a large hole in the roof, which allowed a massive fire to burn in the middle. From time to time the bar staff poured some sugar on it, resulting in a flash and a nice smell of caramel. Superstrength drinks, altitude and tiredness made for a heady mix and I made 2 girls cry (in a good way). I'm still finding the bruises from Lorna's little fall as I helped her home. It all sounds a bit like Swiss Toni at Lord Bargain's stag night. I think we need to get back to sea level.

So Sunday is proving to be a day of rest, yesterday's frantic pace means there's not much left to see in San Pedro and frankly I need the rest. Sadly I can't find the US Open on a telly and Wap (back on the phone in Chile) won't tell me whether Roger Federer won his semi and is about to create some more history. I quite wanted to watch it as then Wimbledon would have been the only grand slam final I'd have missed, which struck me as kinda freaky. I did eventually discover that the king of Switzerland broke more records and very soon will be removing what remains of Simian Sampras' records.

In the evening I did something I've been wanting to do since I set off-have someone knowledgable talk to me about the Southern sky. San Pedro is prime star watching apparently, so I parted with 12 grand (Chilean) as I felt this was my last chance. I was surprised when our host turned out to be French and all the telescopes were outside in the cold. However he was so good and so funny, I didn't even think about mentioning Argentina beating France in the RWC. I hope I can remember what I was told about the movement of the stars, finding the centre of rotation 4 and a half Southern Crosses from the Southern Cross (equivalent to the North Star), stars changing their position by 4 minutes a day and that it'll take 4 years for his coo laser to reach 'nearby' Alpha Centauri, which was 2 stars overlapping when I looked at it in the telescope. We also learnt that the Zodiac is the band around which the planets move and had many constellations laser pointed out to us. Well worth it.

I kept looking longingly at the Southern Cross-I'm going to miss it as it's the one thing I can consistently find and you can't see it in the North. It's a reminder that apart from June's wedding mission and a few moments north of Quito, I've the year in the Southern hemisphere. Being stat obsessed I want to work what percentage of Southern hemisphere countries I've visited. I think it's over half.

Being in Chile means we are close to Santiago, where 7 of the 15 of us are scheduled to leave. Thus far no one has actually left, despite a couple of threats! Lorna was always due to get off in Santiago to fly onto Asia (hopefully she'll have the time to cut my hair before she goes), but Brett's decided not to go onto Buenos as he's got too much to do before starting his masters course, so he's booked himself a flight out of Santiago. I'm wondering a little about Laura, who's due to go to Rio, but is missing Oz a bit. On and off the four of us have been quite tight, so it's going to make a big difference to the dynamic. I have less than 5 weeks to go.......first for all of us is a 17 hour bus ride to La Serena. The Tenant of Wildfell hall and a bag of snacks awaits once I've finished blogging.

Bus update: someone's dropping half hourly farts so rancid they must be rotting from the inside out. We've narrowed it to 5 suspects.

Monday, September 03, 2007

I Predict a Riot

La Paz
After crossing the border, we stopped for lunch in Copacabana (not the famous one) and given free rein to go anywhere to eat, everyone ended up in the same place. La Paz is high up-the highest capital city in the world, although there are currently strikes and demonstrations aimed at making Sucre the capital-it's currently the judicial capital.

La Paz was a winner, more Quito than Lima and spirits seem rejuvenated. I'm really liking Christian-he seems very honest and straightforward. I was the only bloke not to go mountain biking down death road; it's narrow, gravelly, descends over 3,000m and has massive drops off the edge. Given the ease with which I generate downhill speed, I felt it would be foolish for me to go-death road is aptly named as a lot of people have gone over the edge.

So I got to spend the day with the girls-all but one of them had stayed back. We half filled a microbus as we headed out of town to the Valley of the Moon. On the way we passed a large area of red rock formations that looked like Aussie termite hills, as densely packed as stalagmytes. The valley itself is an area of hard to photograph formations with a large canyon. We were a bit short on explanation, but it looked more like mud than rock, which had been eroded and shaped by the wind and rain. There were sedimentary layers throughout the pillars of mud; the pebbles and gravel looking like they had come from a river, tho they may have been glacial.

After a wholefood lunch, we spent half an hour in the Coca museum. Coca is a big deal here and in Peru: people chew the leaves, coca cola use the leaves and the tea is everywhere. However, I think it may be the use of coca leaves to make Cocaine that renders this La Paz most visited museum. There's not a lot to it in truth-lots of photos and a plenty of text. We were given a folder with an English translation: several people noticed the passage on the personality of a drug addict was like a character sketch of one of the group.

We had a good potter round the hilly historic centre, which like so many other S Am towns and cities was pretty without having any major highlights.

La Paz has a Witches market full of odd things, loads of love potions and is one of the places you can buy a Llama foetus

bury one under your house for good luck.

After dinner we popped into the Hard Rock Café for a swift one. As they were serving monstrous 7 year reserve Havana Clubs for 20 Bolivianos (about £1.25), the night turned very messy indeed. With a 7 hour bus ride to Cochabamba the next day, it didn't seem to matter.

I think my iPod may be dying a slow death-on the way into Lima it made horrid grinding noises and died when I tried to skip forward. I rebooted and got a sad face and a web address. It came back to life, but it's just done the same again. Possibily its the altitude. Maybe it's not such a slow death. iPod death has been a recurring fear-I've 6 and a bit weeks and a lot of buses to go.

I was very excited by the idea of visiting and photographing the biggest Jesus in the world. Completed a decade ago, it's 4 cm bigger than Rio's. For me that a good way of saying there's not much here and that's pretty fair. Our time in Cochabamba was completed by another nice square, another small museum complete with mummies, a bit of 10 pin bowling and a very stylistically confused house built in the 1920s for $10M. That's what you can do in a desperately poor country if you get the tin mining rights. It would be almost impossible to spend an equivalent amount today, especially as it wasn't very big. Due to the altitude and his health, Mr Tin never lived in it, while his descendants now live in Switzerland. The mines were nationalised in the 50s,

This was the daddy of Cochabamba tho.

That's 2 big Jesus and a big Mary down, at least 1 big Jesus to go.

We'd heard bad things about the night bus to Sucre. This included reports of people pissing in the aisle-probably apocryphal, but discouraging nonetheless. So we all paid less than £30 extra to fly. Turns out that it was just as well we flew, otherwise we'd have missed out on all the fun.

Flying meant losing a day in Cochabamba (so no great loss) and gaining a good half day in Sucre. Plan quickly formed to take it easy on day 1, see Sucre's sights day 2 and get out of town for some horse trekking on the last day.

Getting into the chilling mode, Lorna and I had lunch looking over Sucre.

We spent a while wading through her photos, the lonely planet and my blog before heading back down into town. We paused to look in the Iglesia de la Mercad; Sucre's churches must be in a sorry state of repair as the LP described the run down interior as the pick. The view from the bell tower was fab. As well as the town, we saw plenty of puffs of smoke as protestors let off firecrackers. The past year has been spent redrafting the Bolivian constitution. The publication of the proposals has been highjacked by those wishing to see Sucre as the country's capital once more. I like Sucre, but it is not a capital city-it does currently share the title with La Paz, but La Paz has both the government and the feel of a capital.

We needed to find a card and present for the group to give Catherine, whose birthday it was. It was decided a bottle of vodka would do the trick. As we walked into the supermarket, I noticed the procession of protestors walking down towards us. I figured that by the time we were out of the shop, it'd make a good photo. As we were paying the cashier was looking away and wiping her eyes-I hadn't thought I smelt that bad. A chap opened the door barely enough for us to squeeze out the shop, which seemed odd as it would have been easier if we'd done it ourselves. About 10 strides later, as my eyes streamed, nose stung and throat burned it became apparent that the police had fired tear gas. So we went to sit in the supermarket. The locals were.

Fairly soon we were restless and vinegar was being passed round-it counteracts the tear gas apparently. After 10 mins or so, we headed out. We still needed a card and knew where to go as the shop had earlier been closed for lunch. Although this meant heading toward where the tear gas had come from, we thought it'd be OK.

I stopped to check the map and noticed the pile of burning tyres

then the riot police ran past

at this point it occurred to us that if Catherine had vodka then she probably wouldn't miss a birthday card. Since the main square and riot epicentre lay between us and our hotel, we had to find a route round the back. The route kept changing as burning tyres, tear gas or crowds of running people dissuaded us going down the planned road. At one point I was at a crossroads, planning another diversion when 3 people ran up with tyres and got ready to light them. Eventually we were looking down the block with our hotel on; it was less than a minute away, but the street was filled with protestors, stale tear gas and had a line of riot police across it.

So we went to the pub. We're both British after all. We got a drink and watched it unfurl on TV, so we only saw footage of the rubber bullets.

Lorna called the hotel to tell them we were OK and found out everyone was there except for Richard and Katie. Christian told Lorna we should stay put and he'd come and get us when it was safe. I wanted to go and look for Richard and Katie, but admitted it was pointless and they were almost certainly doing the same thing as us. I settled for looking up and down the street every so often, expecting my Jedi powers to make me look at a time I would see them. I didn't.

When we finished our wine, we were restless so I went and checked the streets. There were fewer people and only one set of burning tyres between us and the hotel, so we decided not to wait for Christian and just walked back. We recognised all the figures on the balcony watching and photographing the action. Someone should have been selling popcorn.

The smell of the tyres lingered well into the next day, but no one riots at the weekend (no lectures), so we got on with Sucre as planned.

First up was the Casa de la Libertad, where you can see the declaration of independence, overlooked by Simon Bolivar

He also had a big wooden head

PHOTO 7249, which I´ll need to load later as this PC is pants

The Casa isn't too big and is nicely laid out, but as a museum of Bolivian history it has a lot of room for improvement. Even in Spanish, there's next to no information, so a lot of the exhibits leave you rather nonplussed.

Interestingly, Bolivia had a woman president (in 1979) before it had an indigenous one (60% of the population is indigenous). We also noticed it took a very long time before the Bolivians trusted the presidency to a man without facial hair, although his predecessor had enough for 3 men.

One of the big things in these parts are the dinosaur footprints. They were found in a cement mine type place (that sounds wrong) out of town. So we bravely boarded the DinoTruck to get there

It was a bumpy old ride up to DinoLand (I spent the rest of the day giving everything a DinoPrefix). When we got there, it's fair to say it wasn't quite what we expected. I'm not sure the last thing I visited in South America that had clearly had so much money spent on it. They had over 30 life size models of dinosaurs-the Titanosaur (the largest thing ever to walk the earth) was ginormous. Here's the T Rex

everybody loves a good T Rex. All of this was fun, cheesey padding for the tracks. When I saw the tracks were 400m away, on a vertical wall, across a quarry where trucks were running up and down, you'd probably think it was a letdown. Somehow it wasn't. The vertical wall used to be ground by a lake-it's moved due to techtonics. I wish I'd asked what altitude it had come from-I can't imagine there being enough oxygen at this height for such big creatures. You could see lines of tracks quite clearly with the naked eye and the fixed binoculars and camera zoom gave some real detail

I was impressed.

A very long lunch (there's really no such thing as a quick bite), a spin round the University museum and a final abortive attempt to get in the cathedral completed our Sucran tour. Sweet.

Let's face it, everyone's gonna remember Sucre for the tear gas.

Due to a shortage of horses, Sunday's horse trekking morphed into a visit to the market in Tarabuco. It wasn't hugely special, but made a good change of scene for the 4 of us, Iz and Catherine. In any case, Laura found an interesting local hat